Is it Safe to Rent a Car in Costa Rica?

I’ve been traveling to Costa Rica since the year 2000 and even lived in the country for many years, and I’m happy to report that it is safe to rent a car in Costa Rica given you are a cautious driver and understand that at times, you’ll encounter some challenging terrain.  Depending on where you are traveling in Costa Rica, you could expect to navigate mountainous terrain, long, winding roads, potholes, and rain, especially during the rainy season.

Today I’ll share my tips on 23 years of driving in Costa Rica to ensure you have the a safe experience renting a car in Costa Rica.

Tips for a Safe Experience Renting a Car in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a remarkable country that offers something for everyone.  Whether you are in town for work, or simply to explore, there is no shortage of reasons you may travel to Costa Rica.

If you are in the planning stages of visiting Costa Rica and looking at car rentals, there are some things I’d like to share with you based on entering the country over 300 times and driving across the country more times than I can remember!

For starters, Costa Rica is one of the safest countries in Latin America.  It’s highly Americanized and makes substantial money on tourism, so you’ll have no problem finding rental cars in Costa Rica.

However, as realist, there are some words of wisdom I’d like to share with you before you travel.

Costa Rica is Very Diverse

Costa Rica

Depending on where you travel, a rental car may be required, and in some areas it may not be needed at all.  For example, if you are staying near the capital City of San Jose, you’ll not only find an abundance of very affordable Uber’s, but also national taxis.  Both are very safe and you can easily get around San Jose and the Central Valley with these two transportation methods.

There are also buses, but I will warn you they aren’t always on time and are largely used by lower income nationals.  The average per capita income is only $12,670 as of 2022, and despite having a strong middle class, not everyone has the luxury of owning a vehicle.

To boot, the routes and times of the bus schedules can be difficult to come across, making firm plans to be somewhere at a certain time very difficult.

Expanding on the diversity of Costa Rica, you’ll see everything from modern highways in some areas that can bring you from town to town as if you were in the United States, but you’ll also encounter gravel roads and one lane trespasses where you’ll feel like you are trying to put a square peg into a round hole when you encounter oncoming traffic.  For this reason, it’s important to drive with caution and expect anything.  Potholes are also a serious problem, even in the modern, well-designed cities where many expatriates live like Escazu.

I will say that over the years, Costa Rica has spent a lot of money on the roads, but there’s always a spot or two that need improvement.

In my expert opinion, you’ll enjoy Costa Rica so much more by having the freedom of having your own transportation, which makes renting a car the best way to get around.

Is it Safe to Rent and Drive a Car in Costa Rica?

In my expert opinion, you’ll enjoy Costa Rica so much more by having the freedom of having your own transportation, which makes renting a car the best way to get around.  There are so many things to see and do in Costa Rica that you should have the freedom to make stops and enjoy the experiences as you wish.

The biggest draw to Costa Rica is it’s natural beauty.  You won’t be able to see the amazing beaches of Guanacaste by bus, but in a rental car you can do what my son and I did, and visit over 8 beaches in half of a day, stopping to get your toes in the sand and take pictures at every one!

Over 30 percent of the country is a protected national park, wildlife refuge, or reserve.  Good luck seeing those as the bus passes them by!

You’ll also have the luxury of making your own itinerary, and going with the flow.  You’ll pass so many items of interest in your travels across Costa Rica, making having a rental car a necessity.

There are both national brands you’ll recognize in Costa Rica as well as local companies, like Vamos Rent a Car.

I book my vehicles exclusively through because this third party booking engine not only makes the experience 10 times easier, but they also offer the best insurance and curated reviews of every provider based on your pick-up location.

You simply book online, present your voucher upon arrival, and save tons of time at the agency you choose.  Easy, peasy.

You also won’t get roped into any hidden fees, and should you have any issues with your experience, DiscoverCars steps in as your concierge and you don’t have to haggle with the rental car agency.  It’s like having a personal assistant that will handle all of your affairs.

I recently used them in August of 2023 on my trip to the W Hotel in Costa Rica, followed by a very long journey all the way to La Fortuna.

Tips for Renting Cars in Costa Rica

You may read reports of aggressive drivers in Costa Rica, but I can assure you, as someone who has lived in South Florida for many moons, the driving is ten times easier in Costa Rica!  I can say I’ve seen much worse drivers in Miami, Panama, and Brasil, just to name a few.

The only thing I’ve seen that presents danger is that some locals aren’t afraid to pass you on single lane roads into oncoming traffic.  I simply let them drive by and speed ahead.

Know your route ahead of time.  If you are traveling in San Jose, driving can be tricky as there are many one way streets as you enter downtown.  However, if you are outside of San Jose, there are very few turns to make as major highways are few and far between, so you’ll simply jump on one of those and exit when you get to your destination.  There aren’t a lot of turns you’ll have to make onto new roads, no matter where you are traveling.

Waze is the best app for getting around Costa Rica.  Most people there use it and it’s a great navigation tool you can use right off your phone.  Road conditions update in real time and you’ll be warned of any hazards or construction throughout your journey.

It works just like Google Maps for directions, only it offers more current traffic conditions.

Road Conditions in Costa Rica

costa rica potholes
Potholes can be common in parts of Costa Rica.

From the months of November to July you’ll see daily rain on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica.  On the Pacific side and Central Valley, (San Jose), you’ll see rains from May to November.  You can almost set your clock to it, although global warming has provided some surprises in recent years.

The torrential downpours can be a lot like South Florida. They will come out of nowhere and can last a few minutes to a few hours.  Fog is also something that can disrupt a drive, especially if you are near any mountains.

No matter when you travel, keep in mind that Costa Rica is in the tropics and has rain forests.  You can expect a scorching hot sun and rain at any time, although higher elevations can provide cooler temperatures.  This is a country with many micro climates, after all.

I mention these extremes because the elements will erode the already subpar roads, so be careful driving as you’ll encounter potholes and perhaps fallen debris.

Costa Rica Driving Tips

After 23 years of driving in Costa Rica, here are my main takeaways and tips for having a safe time as you rent a car and enjoy all Costa Rica has to offer.

#1:  While Costa Ricans are friendly, they can be aggressive drivers.  As I mentioned earlier, let them pass you if they are in a hurry.  Remember that they probably have to get to work, so just relax and enjoy the scenery and don’t let it bother you.

#2:  When entering a bridge to cross a body of water, often times the roads will narrow to one lane.  Sometimes there is very little notice of this.  Keep your eyes on the road and never exceed the speed limits by too much.

#3:  Always keep an ample supply of gas.  There aren’t an abundance of gas stations in the country, especially as you enter remote areas.  Running out of gas could ruin your day, and possibly, your trip!

#4:  Petty theft is common in Costa Rica.  Never leave valuables in your rental car and lock your door.  Try to park in lots with security guards.

#5:  Be ready for anything while on road trips.  You’ll cross rivers, wind around mountains, encounter fog, and run into switchbacks while driving.

#6:  I rent a mid-size SUV or crossover at the minimum.  You’ll have a more comfortable of a ride in a vehicle like this when compared to a sedan.

#7:  Avoid long distance travel after dark.  You never know what the conditions will be like and the lighting isn’t first-world.

#8:  Expect traffic jams and much more chaos when driving in San Jose.  The aggressive drivers are mostly confined to this area.  You’ll have a much more calm experience when out in say, Liberia, if you are headed to the beaches of Guanacaste.

Why Should You Rent a Car in Costa Rica

For starters, it provides you with a lot more freedom to explore.

Second, your driver’s license from your country will allow you to drive freely throughout the country.

Lastly, when you book with DiscoverCars, you’ll get the best rates, the most bang for your buck on the insurance, and the least amount of hassle.  I can’t recommend them enough, and I am a yearly visitor to Costa Rica dating back to 2000.

With this said, I hope you learned that it’s entirely safe to drive in Costa Rica, and I wish you the best in your trip.  Please feel free to contact me with any questions.

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Tim Schmidt is a 20+ year Entrepreneur and Digital Marketer. A Fort Lauderdale-based "Digital Nomad," he enjoys traveling as much as possible with family and friends. AllWorld is his escape to document all of his adventures, including being a hardcore "foodie." He has property in Costa Rica and visits several times each year and is happy to offer his expert advice for planning your trip.

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